By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Oli Carmody had been in pressure situations before, but nothing compared to what confronted the sophomore from Stevensville Lakeshore on Thursday.
With one out in a scoreless game, Carmody relieved Logan Morrow with runners on first and second base in the bottom of the ninth inning. Carmody went to 3-0 on Orchard Lake St. Mary’s leadoff hitter before retiring him on a fly to center. He got the next batter on a fly out to end the inning, and then singled in Lakeshore’s first run of a three-run 10th as the Lancers held on to defeat St. Mary’s 3-0 in a Division 2 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium.
Back in November, Carmody – playing his first season as goalkeeper on the soccer team – made a diving stop of a penalty kick to give Lakeshore a 2-1 victory over Plainwell in a Division 2 Regional Semifinal.
When asked which game held more importance, Carmody gave a quick response.
“It’s not even close,” he said. “Baseball is my life. This was the greatest experience of my life.
“I’ll admit that I was a little nervous (pitching in relief). When I saw I was missing high, I made adjustments. Once I got that first strike over, I got my confidence right there.”
Lakeshore (26-14) will attempt to repeat as Division 2 baseball champion when it faces Saginaw Swan Valley at 9 a.m. Saturday. Lakeshore also won Class B in 1990.
Thursday’s starting pitchers Connor Brawley of Lakeshore and Logan Wood of St. Mary’s were outstanding. Brawley allowed six hits, one walk and struck out seven in his 7 1/3 innings, and Wood went 8 2/3 and allowed two hits, three walks and struck out nine.
“It was crazy,” Brawley said. “The game flies by. I felt good out there. It was so hard (to come out). Our offense, we just compete. It’s been that way all season.”
Carmody went 1 2/3 innings to notch the victory, allowing no hits and one walk.
Catcher Bray Plomb and Cam Dalrymple started the 10th inning for Lakeshore with singles. A wild pitch put runners on second and third. Carmody singled to score the first run, and the second run scored on a wild pitch. Joel Brawley, Connor’s cousin, knocked in the third run with a bunt single.
St. Mary’s (28-13), the champion in 2015, had good chances to win the game in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The Eaglets had two runners in the seventh, but Connor Brawley recorded a strikeout to end the inning.
In the eighth, St. Mary’s loaded the bases and Alex Mooney lined out to right field to end the inning. In the ninth Carmody worked out of the jam to end the Eaglets’ last serious threat.
“There were many times we were against the ropes,” Lakeshore coach Mark Nate said. “They score, they win. We grinded it out.”
St. Mary’s is a young team, but coach Matt Petry gave no excuses. The Eaglets started four freshmen and four sophomores last season, so even though they have only four seniors on the roster, two of whom start, Petry said his players have been in a number of big games.
“We made the Catholic League final this year,” he said. “These guys have played in Comerica Park. We expected to make a good run in the tournament. We’re excited for the future. but today stinks. We hit the ball hard. We had runners in scoring position.”
Saginaw Swan Valley 3, DeWitt 1
Swan Valley scored three runs in the first inning, and that’s all the Vikings needed to earn their first championship game appearance since 2001, when they defeated Wyoming Park, 4-1, for the Division 2 title.
In the first frame, Swan Valley (33-8-3) loaded the bases with one out, and Easton Goldensoph was hit by a pitch to force in the first run Logan Pietz drove in the next with a single, and the third run scored on a wild pitch.
DeWitt (27-7) scored its run in the top of the sixth inning on a Jace Preston single.
Goldensoph’s brother, Avery, a freshman, went the distance for the victory. He allowed six hits, walked two and struck out five.
“We’re excited to be back,” Swan Valley first-year coach Craig Leddy said. “These kids are young. They don’t know what pressure is. They drive me crazy, they’re so loose.”
Nolan Knauf allowed just two hits in going all six innings for DeWitt. The one bad inning did him in.
“Nothing’s promised,” DeWitt coach Alan Shankel said. “Credit goes to Swan Valley. They made the plays. We were knocking on the door all game.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Stevensville Lakeshore’s Logan Morrow makes his move toward the plate in Thursday’s first Division 2 Semifinal. (Middle) Swan Valley’s Avery Goldensoph drives a pitch during the second Semifinal at McLane Stadium.
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
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PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)